There’s nothing quite as exciting as seeing your tulips bloom in the spring. Winter’s grasp on the land is finally loosening and warm weather is on the way!
It’s frustrating when your tulips are thriving one day and looking haggard the next and you have to ask yourself the question: Just what is eating my tulips?!
If your tulip’s appearance has declined, then bugs and insects may be responsible.
Read on to discover all the bugs and insects that love dining on your tulip flowers. We’ll also go over what the damage looks like and what you can do to stop it!
1. Bulb Mites Infest Your Tulip Bulbs
Bulb mites are extremely small bugs that are closely related to spiders. They are difficult to detect with the naked eye, measuring only 1/25 inches long.
Damage from bulb mites will depend on the humidity and temperature. According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, bulb mites are most active when humidity is high and temperatures are between 60℉ and 80℉.
Damage from bulb mites can affect the growth of the plant and its ability to sprout. Check for these signs of bulb mite damage on your tulips:
- Discolored bulbs: Bulbs that appear reddish-brown may be infested with bulb mites. They can enter the inner folds of the bulb, meaning you might see discoloration but not see mites.
- Stunted growth: If bulbs infested with bulb mites still grow, the leaves of your tulip plant will be stunted.
- Yellow leaves: Likewise, infested bulbs will produce stunted leaves and eventually the leaves will turn yellow.
- No growth: large infestations will result in a rotting bulb that will not sprout in the spring.
How To Keep Bulb Mites Away From Your Tulip Bulbs
If your tulips are experiencing some signs of bulb mite damage listed above, there are a few things you can try to deter bulb mites from your tulips.
- Inspect bulbs before planting and purchasing: Before planting your tulips, check for any discoloration on the bulb. Make sure the bulb isn’t soft or easily squished. This is a sign of mite infestation.
- Use predatory mites: You can introduce the predatory mite Hypoaspis Aculeifer into the soil to help defend against bulb mites. Natures Good Guy’s 12,500 Live Hypoaspis Miles (Predatory Mites) can be purchased online.
The cool thing about tulips is that they will call out for help from predatory mites using an odor. According to an article in the Journal of Experimental & Applied Acarology, tulip bulbs that are fed on by mites will release an odor that attracts predatory mites to that location.
- Give your bulb a hot water bath: Before planting, heat water to 120℉ and place the bulbs in the water for 2 minutes. This will kill any mites currently infesting the bulb.
2. Spider Mites Love Devouring Tulip Leaves
Spider mites may be tiny, but they cause colossal problems that seem to pop up out of nowhere. One day your plants are fine, the next there are webs all over the leaves and stems.
As the name suggests, spider mites are closely related to spiders. These tiny arachnids target the leaves and stem of your tulip plant.
Spider mite damage is most likely to occur during the hot dry months of June through August. This is when spider mite populations can explode and cause some serious damage to your tulips.
Signs of spider mite damage include:
- White or yellow dots on leaves: Spider mites feed on the sap from leaves. Their feeding leaves small white or yellow speckles on the leaves.
- Webs: Look for spider mite webs in the crotches of your tulip plant where the leaves and stems meet. They may also be on the underside of leaves.
The twospotted spider mite is the most likely culprit behind spider mite damage. However, there are a few other species that may occasionally munch on tulip leaves.
How To Keep Spider Mites Away From Tulip Leaves
Having a spider mite problem isn’t like other pests where you can just pick them off or fence them out. These tiny arachnids cannot be seen except with the aid of a magnifying glass or microscope.
How do you keep away such a tiny pest?
Rest assured, there are a couple of things you can do to keep spider mites away from your precious tulip plants!
- Water your tulips: Drought-stressed tulips are more likely to attract spider mites than healthy, happy tulips. Be sure to give your tulips enough water.
- Avoid insecticide sprays: Insecticide sprays will kill the natural enemies of spider mites, allowing for population outbreaks.
- Eliminate dust: This goes hand-in-hand with watering your tulips. Dusty, dry dirt will promote spider mite outbreaks. Keep pathways and areas around tulips free of dust as well.
- Release predatory mites: An article in the Journal of Experimental and Applied Acarology found that predatory mites can significantly reduce the population of twospotted spider mites.
The mentioned study used Neoseiulus californicus predator mites, which can be purchased online such as Bug Sales 2,000 Live Adult Predatory Mites.
These are different predatory mites than those that target bulb mites, which makes it important to identify which type of mite you are dealing with if you wish to use this tactic to get rid of them.
3. Aphids Love Eating Tulip Leaves
Aphids are a well-known problem pest in gardens and landscapes. These soft-bodied insects prey on the leaves of your tulip plants.
Late spring is when aphid damage reaches its peak. They prefer the weather to be warm without the scorching bite of summer heat.
When it comes to aphids, it’s important to identify damage early, before large populations infest your tulips. Look for these signs of aphid damage:
- Yellow leaves: The feeding behavior of aphids can cause tulip leaves to turn yellow. This typically only happens when populations are high.
- Leaf curl: Some species of aphids will inject toxins into the leaves of tulips, which causes them to curl. When this happens, controlling aphid populations is made much more difficult.
- Presence of sooty mold: While feeding, aphids excrete a substance called honeydew which encourages the growth of sooty mold fungus. Look for black spots on the leaves that indicate mold growth.
- Stunted Shoots: Aphid feeding can stunt the shoots of tulip plants, leaving them smaller and less full than uninfested tulips.
- ants: If there are tons of ants crawling around your tulip plants, it is an indication that aphids are nearby. Ants will feed off the honeydew that is excreted by aphids.
You can read about why aphids come around and how to keep them away here.
How To Stop Aphids From Damaging Your Tulip Plants
Aphids rarely form in populations large enough to do serious damage to tulip plants. However, if your tulips are suffering or exhibiting any of the signs listed above, there are a few things you can do to get rid of aphids and keep them away for good.
- Avoid insecticides: It can be tempting to use an insecticide to get rid of insect pests, but this will eliminate far more beneficial insects than aphids and can cause populations to explode.
- Spray leaves with water: Use a garden hose and spray the underside of tulip leaves to remove aphids from the plants. This is a great option if there isn’t a large population.
- Encourage natural enemies: Parasitic wasps, ladybugs, and soldier beetles all feed on aphids. You can purchase live ladybugs online, like these Natures Good Guys 1500 Live Ladybugs and release them near your tulips to help control aphids.
If you decide to go this route, wait until dusk to release the ladybugs. Gently mist them before releasing and mist the surface you are releasing them onto. This will encourage the ladybugs to stick around instead of flying off immediately.
You can read more about how to attract ladybugs to your yard here.
4. Leafrollers Love Munching On Tulip Leaves
Leafrollers consist of many species of caterpillars. They eventually turn into moths of varying species depending on the type of caterpillar.
These wiggly pests start small, measuring only 1/16th of an inch. At this stage, they burrow into leaves, lodging themselves between the upper and lower part of the leaf. Here, they spend a nice cozy winter.
Leafroller damage is most pronounced in spring when leaves are just getting established. Damage can come in many forms. Check for these signs on your tulip plant:
- Curled leaves: when caterpillars get too chunky to fit inside the leaf, they’ll exit the inner leaf and move to the outside edge where they spin and curl the leaf over for protection.
- Leaves that do not open: If your tulip leaves remain closed through the entire growing season, it could be because of leafrollers.
- Holes in leaves: While sitting safe and cozy in their rolled-up leaves, leafrollers will chow down on the leaves. This leaves small holes in the leaves.
- No blooms: If leafroller damage is severe, your tulip plants may sprout but they will not bloom flowers.
How To Keep Leafrollers Away From Tulip Leaves
Damage from leafrollers is typically mild unless there is a large population. If you’re seeing the above signs of damage, then you may have an infestation that warrants taking action.
Here are some ways you can prevent leafrollers from rolling your tulip leaves:
- Avoid insecticides: It may seem counterproductive, but using insecticides is going to destroy beneficial insects that are natural enemies of leafrollers.
- Check leaves in spring: As spring approaches and tulips grow, inspect the leaves often for signs of leafrollers. As adults, they will be nearly an inch long, so they will be visible upon inspection. If spotted, pick them off or spray them off with water.
- Eliminate above-ground plant matter in winter: Leafrollers overwinter inside dead leaves. Remove any dead leaves or plant material near your tulip beds to prevent spring outbreaks.
If the leafroller infestation is severe, an insecticide may be necessary. Look for insecticides that contain spinosad which is preferred over B.T. for control of leafrollers.
VPG’s Natural Guard Spinosad Soap can be used on tulips and will target leafrollers and spider mites.
5. Bulb Flies Love Eating Tulip Bulbs
Bulb flies are often mistaken for honeybees, as they have a similar appearance and can be fuzzy. However, it’s not the flies that cause the damage, it’s the larvae that are the wicked pests!
Bulb flies lay eggs in May, and in just a few short weeks, the eggs will hatch into maggots. This maggot/larval stage is when the most damage occurs, usually in May and June.
Once the eggs hatch, the maggots bore into tulip bulbs and feed on the flower buds. It takes bulb fly maggots about two months to grow, but they will remain in the bulb until winter passes.
Some telltale signs of bulb fly damage include:
- Rotting bulbs: When bulb fly maggots feed on tulip bulbs, it can cause the bulbs to rot away because of overfeeding or from fungus entering through the feeding holes.
- No growth: If spring rolls around and your tulips are failing to sprout at all, it could be a bulb fly ruining the bulb.
- Yellow leaves: If damage isn’t too severe to the bulb, tulips will still bloom. However, the leaves may turn yellow because of poor nutrition and damaged bulbs.
- Stunted growth: Similar to yellowing leaves, damage to the bulb can cause stunted growth in tulip plants.
How To Prevent Bulb Flies From Destroying Tulip Bulbs
It can seem impossible to prevent tiny larvae from infesting your tulip bulbs. What can be done when all the damage is underground?
While it’s not really possible to prevent maggots from boring into tulip bulbs, there are things you can do before planting and after sprouting. This will make the area less attractive to adult bulb flies, hopefully encouraging them to lay their eggs somewhere else.
- Pick up fallen leaves: Any leaves that fall will open up a space in the soil under which a female bulb fly can lay her eggs. This tactic is especially effective in late spring when mating and egg-laying are happening.
- Give your bulbs a hot water bath: If you suspect your bulbs are infested with bulb fly larvae, you can soak them in 110℉ water for 40 minutes. This will eliminate any maggots.
- Check bulbs before planting: Before planting tulip bulbs, make sure they are free of any pests such as bulb fly larvae. Any soft, squishy, or off-colored bulbs should be discarded.
The best time to deploy these prevention tactics is around April and May. Remember, adult flies emerge around May. You’ll want to be especially vigilant during April, May, and June.
6. Thrips Snack On Tulip Bulbs
Thrips are strange-looking, slender insects. There are many species, some of which are beneficial to have around. The ones most likely to damage tulips include gladiolus, onion, and flower thrips.
These tiny winged pests target tulip flower buds and leaves. While their damage doesn’t harm trees and shrubs, ornamental plants like tulips can be severely damaged by these little pests.
Thrip damage is most likely to occur during warm weather when they are most active. Be on the lookout for these signs of thrip damage on your tulips:
- No bloom: If thrips have fed on the flower buds of tulips, the flowers may never open, leaving you with a lackluster plant.
- Brown or silver speckles on leaves: Thrips feed by sucking out plant sap from leaves. This feeding doesn’t leave holes, but it will turn the area brown or silver from the feeding damage.
- Black specks on leaves: While feeding, thrips will leave behind black spots on tulip leaves. This is not damage but rather excrement left by the insects.
Damage from thrips can range from mild to severe. By the time you see damage on tulips, the thrips may have moved onto a different host. Therefore, prevention is key when it comes to thrip damage.
How To Prevent Thrip Damage To Your Tulips
Unlike leafrollers, thrips are very small and hard to see, which can make identifying them difficult unless you know the signs of damage like the ones listed above.
One way to identify if thrips are to blame is by hanging yellow sticky traps near your tulip plants. Gideal’s 20-pack Dual-Sided Yellow Sticky Traps comes with two trap stands and 20 traps that you can place near your tulips.
After a few days, inspect the traps to see if thrips are present. If they are, it’s time to take action! Here are some ways to prevent damage and deter thrips from your tulips:
- Eliminate dust: Predators of thrips will have an easier time locating and preying on thrips when the dust is eliminated. Rinse off dusty tulip leaves and consider watering the ground nearby if the weather is very hot and dry.
- Use sticky traps: You can use sticky traps for more than just identifying thrips. According to Clemson University, yellow and blue are the best colors to attract and trap thrips.
7. Caterpillars Love Eating Tulip Leaves
We mentioned leafrollers earlier, which are a specific caterpillar that targets tulips. However, there are TONS of other caterpillars that are not so picky about what they eat.
Your tulips may or may not be on the menu.
Caterpillars are the larval stage of moths and butterflies. There are thousands of different species, some feeding on foliage alone while others will target the entire plant.
Some caterpillars will be active in spring while others are active in summer. It all depends on when they hatch. Most tulip-damaging caterpillars will be most active in spring when they fatten up on tulip leaves to prepare for their transformation into a butterfly or moth.
Check for these signs of caterpillar in spring when your tulips first emerge:
- Holes in leaves: Caterpillars will leave holes in the leaves from feeding.
- Chewed flowers: Some caterpillar species will chew on tulip flowers. Look for missing parts of fresh blooms. They may also damage flower buds, creating stunted or discolored flowers.
- Webbing: Many species of caterpillars will use webbing to secure themselves to plants or to help keep rolled leaves secure. Check for webbing, especially on rolled leaves to confirm you’re dealing with a caterpillar.
In most cases, caterpillar feeding will not kill your tulip plants. However, the feeding holes and webs can make the plants look unsightly.
How To Deter Caterpillars From Tulip Plants
Even though caterpillars rarely kill tulips, their damage can really dampen that spring vibe that tulips give off.
If you suspect caterpillars are to blame for the damage to your tulip, there are a few things you can do to keep these worm-like pests away. However, for a more in-depth look, you can read our article about the fastest ways to get rid of caterpillars here.
- Pick em’ off: Caterpillars are easy to see when they are feeding. They’re typically plump and at least 1 inch long, if not more, depending on the species. Grab some gloves and pick them off your tulips.
- Prune rolled leaves: Snip off leaves that are rolled up or matted with webs. This will eliminate further hiding places for future caterpillars.
- Encourage natural enemies: birds, beetles, and spiders often feed on caterpillars. You can encourage birds by providing them with bushes and trees. For beetles and spiders, avoid using pesticides and insecticides that eliminate them.
If you’re looking for more information on what attracts caterpillars and how to get rid of them, you can check out our article on it!
That’s A Wrap!
Tulips are an amazing treat to see when they bloom. All those colorful flowers signal that spring has arrived and warm weather is here to stay.
That’s why when you find damage to your tulips, it can be incredibly frustrating. There are a few potential culprits. To recap, 7 bugs and insects that just looove eating your tulips are:
- Bulb mites
- Spider mites
- Bulb fly larvae
One recurring theme for prevention is to avoid the use of insecticides. While this seems counterproductive, using insecticides can do more harm than good when it comes to these specific pests.
Another important aspect of protecting your tulips is to identify the correct pest. Once you do, you can implement the correct deterrents to keep them away for good! If all else fails, you can reach out to a professional to help you identify what pest you are dealing with.
Aratchige, N. S., Lesna, I., & Sabelis, M. W. (2004). Below-ground plant parts emit herbivore-induced volatiles: olfactory responses of a predatory mite to tulip bulbs infested by rust mites. Experimental & Applied Acarology, 33, 21-30.
Fraulo, A. B., & Liburd, O. E. (2007). Biological control of twospotted spider mite, Tetranychus urticae, with predatory mite, Neoseiulus californicus, in strawberries. Experimental and Applied Acarology, 43(109).
Pests and Diseases of Outdoor Bulbs and Corms. (2000). In D. V. Alford & British Crop Protection Council (Eds.), Pest and Disease Management Handbook (pp. 542-599). Wiley.
Saad, A. F.A. (2019, February). Comparative Study on the Effect of Insect Infestation by Aphid and Thrips on some Morphological Characteristics of Tulip Flowers under Glasshouse Conditions. Egyptian Academic Journal of Biological Sciences (A. Entomology), 12(1), 1-7.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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